by Tracy Behrendt, Correspondent
As long as she can remember, the Rev. Susan Masters, '08, has interpreted through sign language. She began by interpreting for her sister, Vera, who is deaf—whether ordering French fries at McDonald's or helping her sister converse with neighbors. Later, Susan became a professional interpreter to pay bills as she worked toward a master's degree in clinical social work.
It was her knowledge of both American Sign Language and the Lutheran faith that first won her a position as an interim lay minister at Bread of Life Deaf Lutheran Church in Minneapolis from 1996 to 1997. She returned to that position again for one year in 2001.
"There were no available ordained pastors anywhere in the U.S. who had either the language or the culture knowledge required to fill the call—a problem that continues today," said Masters. "I had known since high school that I wanted to go to seminary. These two lay experiences provided me the rare and wonderful opportunity to try out ministry before I actually went to seminary."
After her second time serving at Bread of Life, Masters could no longer deny her call to ordained ministry. In 2008, she graduated from Luther Seminary with a Master of Divinity degree and, soon after, was called as the full-time pastor at Bread of Life.
But serving as a hearing pastor in a largely deaf congregation has been no simple task.
"Without a doubt, deaf ministry is the most challenging thing I have ever done," said Masters, who often spends hours creating ASL resources for her congregation since few exist. "Deaf ministry is for me—in every sense of the word—cross-cultural ministry and, as such, it offers up some unique challenges that most of my colleagues never have to think about."
Masters noted that the relationship between the deaf community and the larger church has not always been healthy, either. In many ways, she represents a hearing community that has often excluded deaf and hard of hearing people. But she and the Bread of Life community have been patiently working through those differences—to the benefit of the entire congregation.
"They teach me much about being aware of my own position of power as a hearing person and how I need to do things so that I am an ally instead of yet another hearing person trying to dominate them," she said.
Masters, who has interpreted for Luther Seminary commencement ceremonies and other events, hopes her new position at Bread of Life will help bring change to the larger deaf-ministry community in years to come.
"I am passionate about wanting to help recruit and train deaf candidates for church vocations," Masters said. "This is something that won't happen overnight. But it will never happen until we begin laying the groundwork so that in a few years we will have deaf people leading deaf congregations. I guess you could say I feel called to work my way out of my job."